Come One, Come all to "The Vag Club"

Annaul Women's Center exhibit debuts 'shocking' centerpiece

“More Than Skin Deep,” the Harvard College Women’s Center’s spring art exhibition, is taking an in-depth look at body issues—literally. The largest piece in the show is an over-sized photograph of a vagina, complete with pubic hair and a manifesto. The work, entitled “The Vag Club,” connects final clubs to the vulva and is just one of the many works that illuminates how art can address social issues at Harvard.

Every semester the Women’s Center stages an exhibition organized around a certain topic. The subject this spring—the relationship between Harvard and body issues—stems from last fall’s “Autobiography” theme. Both the exhibition and its title, “More Than Skin Deep,” are intended to demonstrate the all-encompassing nature of body issues.

“Body image is not just restricted to the way you look, your weight, height, and skin color,” curator Andrés C. Samayoa ’10 says. “It transcends and goes beyond that.”

The variety of pieces included in the show demonstrates this multiplicity. Artworks focus on topics from abortion to bell peppers. Any piece that was submitted in a timely fashion was included in the show, resulting in a range of both quality and topic.

“All the pieces are so personal that if the person felt that it fit with the theme, then that qualified it,” Samayoa says of the decision.

Indeed, many artists took a very personal approach to the relationship between Harvard and body issues, though this is not an alienating force.

For Courtney L. Blair ’10, who attended the opening, it was the very opposite. “The artists express a lot of things that I’m feeling,” she says. “It’s nice to see that someone else is thinking the same thing that I am.”

But some pieces in the show are less easily relatable. “The Vag Club,” for instance, is not a reiteration of hackneyed sentiments about the body. As people walked by the over-sized photograph of a vagina, they expressed shock, enthusiastic approval, and understanding. Jenna M. Mellor ’08, who created the piece in response to an assignment for Visual and Enviornmental Studies 65: “Tactics-Art, Politics and Performance,” admits that she wanted her work to border on absurdity. “Vaginas do not always treat vaginas nicely. In fact it seems as though vaginas hate vaginas,” one manifesto statement reads. “Non vaginas promise to bring the vagina lots of wet vaginas with big tits,” another asserts. These strong declarations help elicit the reflective reactions that the artist had intended.

“I was shocked to see a vagina that big in my face. It’s not something that we’re used to seeing,” says Natasha Alford ’08, who calls “The Vag Club” her favorite piece. “But as somebody who frequents final clubs, I never really made that explicit connection, how body and spaces are connected. It was really thought-provoking.”

“The Vag Club” manifesto makes the association between vaginal space and final club space clear. Both are exclusive sites to which access is desired by many but granted to few. Mellor also writes of the importance of money and social status for entrance into both sites and of the rituals that surround them, claiming that final clubs have a negative effect on campus life.

“Final clubs do have an impact on the way we present ourselves to be acceptable sexually,” she says. “I wanted to link power hierarchy, structural inequality and show how they manifest themselves on the bodies of real women.”

However, Mellor’s piece does more than just express her personal opinion. It also sparks a dialogue about how social anxieties are projected onto both the female and male body—exactly the type of debate that curator Samayoa had envisioned.

“More Than Skin Deep” uses art to address body issues at Harvard, acting as an aesthetically minded display as well as a provocation. According to Mellor, making social commentary is exactly what good art does.

“Art is about expression and willingness to take risks,” she says. “Good art can inspire the same approach to society and approaching life like art is to make real social change.”